Orthodox-Reformed Bridge

A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

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Resurrection Sunday 2021


In its worship the Orthodox Church uses what is called the eight tones.  These tones guide the singing of the various hymns relating to Christ’s resurrection, the Virgin Mary, and the theme of the day.  Tone two for the Resurrectional apolytikia describes quite nicely and very succinctly Christ’s resurrection.

Second Tone

When you descended unto death, O life immortal, You destroyed Hades with the splendor of Your divinity. And when You raised the dead from the depths of darkness, all the heavenly powers shouted: O Giver of life, Christ our God, glory to You.

Here is the link to the choir of St. Anne Orthodox Church (Corvallis, Oregon) singing this particular hymn.  Source

Christ the Firstborn of the Dead

In Colossians 1:18 the Apostle Paul describes Jesus Christ as the firstborn of the dead.  It seems that Paul has inserted an ancient Christological hymn into his letter to the Colossians.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or [f]powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. [NKJV; emphasis added]

In this ancient hymn we find an allusion to Genesis in which Christ creates the Earth and our first parents, Adam and Eve, and an allusion to the new heaven and the new earth that would be described in Revelation 21.

The Greek word for “firstborn” is “πρωτότοκος” (prototokos).  While the word can be understood as first in time, it is better understood as first in  hierarchical ordering.  Thus, “firstborn” can also be understood to mean “first in rank,” “preeminent,” or “unique supremacy.”  (See Kittel Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol. VI pp. 876-881)

In the case of Christ’s resurrection, he was indeed the first Man to rise from the dead.  We see in the Resurrection Icon the Second Adam descending to Hades and rescuing the first Adam.  Unlike Lazarus whose resurrection in John 11 was a temporary one, Christ’s resurrection is a permanent triumph over Death.  The liberation of Adam and Eve from the power of Death is a promise that we too will be sharers in Christ’s Resurrection.

What is striking about Colossians 1 is the dominance of the Christus Victor paradigm.  Our salvation is described in terms of our being delivered from the power of darkness and our transfer into the kingdom of the Son (1:13).  Christ’s preeminence over thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers (1:16) likewise reflects the Christus Victor paradigm.  While elements of the penal or forensic paradigm can be inferred from “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:14) and “peace through the blood of His cross” (1:20), these verses can also be understood from the standpoint of a cosmic war.  Christ comes to rescue those held hostage by the Devil. The long war between Christ and Satan is concluded by Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross and his triumphal Resurrection.  Now that we have been rescued from the Devil and from Death, we can like the Prodigal Son return home and be reconciled with the Loving Father who awaits our return.

Christ’s Resurrection entitles him to supremacy over the new heaven and new earth.  This is the basis for the Great Commission passage found in Matthew 28:18-20 in which Christ commands his Church to go and evangelize all the nations.  We are commanded to let the world know that mankind’s great enemy Death has been defeated and that the gift of Life is available through the Risen Christ.  Along with the command to evangelize is the command to baptize.  This is because through the sacrament of baptism we are joined to Christ’s death and to his resurrection (Romans 6:3-4).  Baptism is more than a symbolic gesture, it contains a spiritual power that joins the believer to their Lord on a profound level resulting in new life.  Previously, there was darkness and corruption in the core of our being but thanks to the sacrament of baptism we have been engrafted into Jesus Christ the New Vine.

Hope Under the Shadow of COVID-19

For over a year we have been living under the shadow of the global COVID-19 pandemic.  See my Easter posting from last year: “Being Faithful in Dark Times.”  Our generation is not the first to struggle with the terror of widespread illnesses and unexpected deaths of friends and loved ones, and the sense of isolation and desolation caused by social distancing.  The history of mankind has been shadowed by other plagues and pestilence as well.  It is not certain when we will exit the current health crisis, but it will pass as did many prior pandemics.  COVID-19 is a reminder that our enemy Death is not far away.  Easter Sunday is a reminder that Jesus Christ has dealt Death a decisive blow.  This is the basis for Good News of the Christian religion.  Christians can dare to hope in the face of death, sickness, and suffering.

I would encourage readers to visit the website for the Resurrection Icon illustration above.  There you will see a much larger version of the Resurrection icon shown here.  If you look closely at the faces of the three central figures: Christ, Adam, and Eve, you will see expressions of joy, hope, and courage–the three things so desperately needed in these COVID-19 times.

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

Robert Arakaki



No Bowing Allowed?


Venerating the Icon of Saints Peter and Paul

A reader recently wrote:

My greatest struggle with Orthodoxy is the veneration of saints, angels, and Blessed Mary. In the Book of Revelations there is a scene that plays on 22:8 where John bows to an angel and the angel rebukes him. Typically, Roman Catholic and Orthodox say that he was rebuked for trying to worship the angel (not venerate). The problem though (in my view) is that is the Beloved Apostle. He devoted his life to the God of Israel and when Jesus came to Jesus the Messiah (also God). He wrote one of the four Gospels. He would not worship an angel. It seems to me that that was veneration that he was offering and not adoration, but he was still rebuked for bowing. I can’t see how John would commit idolatry and worship the angel. He would try to veneration though. So if we cant bow to angels how can we bow (in veneration) to images?


My response

I took a look at Revelation 22:8.  The text says: “I John am he who heard and saw them.  I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me . . . .” I also checked the Greek text and found that there were two verbs used here: “epesa proskunesai.” (ἔπεσα προσκυνῆσαι NA28)  The first verb “epesa” takes the aorist past tense of “fall down” and the second verb “proskunesai” (to worship) takes the infinitive form indicating the reason or motive for the action.  You are right that John would not want to worship an angel but the infinitive of intent for “proskunesai” indicates that that was what he had intended when he fell down. Basically, the physical act of bowing is not intrinsically wrong.  What was wrong was the intent behind the bowing, that is, bowing as an act of worship.  The basic problem with your argument then is that it fixates on the first verb and ignores or overlooks the second verb.  This misreading of Revelation 22:8 is not good exegesis.  In other words, Orthodoxy, which is open to veneration, is on much solid scriptural ground than Protestantism, which shuns veneration.

Bathsheba kneeling before David – painting by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

If we look at Scripture we can find instances where people bowed to show respect to another person.  In Genesis 33:6-7, we read that Jacob’s wives and children bowed before Esau during the family reconciliation.  In 1 Kings 1:16 and 23 (RSV), we read that King David’s wife, Bathsheba, and the Prophet Nathan bowed down before the king.  Verse 16 says that Bathsheba “bowed and did obeisance to the king.”  In the book of Acts, the Philippian jailer fell down before the Apostle Paul asking “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul did not rebuke the jailer because the jailer was attempting to show respect to the man he earlier treated as a lowlife criminal.


Philippian jailer kneeling before the Apostle Paul and Silas

Bowing in ancient times was a common practice with a range of meaning, from social courtesy to religious devotion.  It seems that Protestantism has become hypersensitive to the physical act of bowing in their reaction against Roman Catholic medieval piety and in their attempt to purify the church.

The key difference between veneration and worship would be offering a sacrifice.  This is what we find in Acts 14 when Paul and Barnabas learned to their horror that the citizens of Lystra were about to offer a sacrifice of oxen to them, believing Barnabas to be an incarnation of Zeus and Paul an incarnation of Hermes (Acts 14:11-15).  Similarly, in Orthodoxy we may bow to show respect to Mary and the saints, but the core of the Liturgy is the Eucharist in which the bloodless sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood is offered to God alone.  During the Liturgy the Orthodox faithful also offer up our whole lives to Christ our God, which is in accordance with Romans 12:1.  The important thing to keep in mind is that the center focus of Orthodoxy is the worship of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Mary and the saints are peripheral.  Not that they are ignored (as so often happens in Protestantism) but they are peripheral much like the supporting cast who surround the star of the show.  Protestant spirituality can be likened to a Jesus-and-me spirituality.  For many Protestants converting to Orthodoxy is a lot like a girlfriend who gets taken to her boyfriend’s home and meets all of his relatives.  If she is serious about her relationship with the boyfriend, she is going to have to accept his larger family as well.

Bowing in Japan

The Protestant objection to bowing has disturbing cultural implications.  If bowing is so intrinsically wrong, then Asians who become Christians are obligated to refrain from bowing to their parents, which would be taken as highly disrespectful and offensive.  Furthermore, this position runs contrary to the Ten Commandments which enjoined honoring one’s father and mother—at least in the way Asians who apply it.  





Protestantism’s Roots in Modernity

I suspect that the Protestant reservation about bowing stems from their being Western and their being modern.  Modernity has resulted in a flattening of social relations and a break from traditional culture which assume hierarchical relations.  This flattening effect can be seen in the Reformed tradition’s rejection of the episcopacy and their not addressing ministers as “Father.”  This way of thinking is tragic and contrary to history.  It is contrary to Christianity’s roots in Judaism and to the Tradition of the Church Fathers. Even early Protestant creeds used the language of hierarchy in social relations, even explicitly speaking about “inferiors and superiors.” See the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 126 to Q. 133 which expounds on the Fifth Commandment.

In the eyes of Moderns, secularist and even Christians, all hierarchies are considered unjust and corrupting, and therefore to be scorned and done away with. Protestants have been at the forefront of espousing republicanism and the abolition of monarchies.  Oliver Cromwell, a devout Puritan, led the movement to abolish the episcopacy in England and for a time headed the short-lived republican Commonwealth of England. This leveling influence can also be seen in Hawaii’s history where the leading haole (White) Congregationalist church (descended from the New England Puritans) openly supported the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Protestantism’s new social dynamic had unintended consequences for faith and practice.  Where the early Reformers retained a sacramental worldview and respected social hierarchies, later generations of Protestants reduced the sacraments to mere symbols, eliminated the office of the bishop, and expressly forbade the honoring of saints calling it sinful.  Protestantism’s sola scriptura elevated the sermon to a position of prominence in the Sunday service and relegated the Eucharist to the periphery.  But it did not end there; in recent years the sermon has undergone further changes.  Where before the Protestant pastor would strive to give the unvarnished truth of God’s word based on careful exegesis, now the sermon has devolved into an inspiring or comforting message to please the audience. Many Protestant pastors have become religious entrepreneurs.  Church members have become customers whose loyalty the pastor must retain in order to keep the religious enterprise going.  This is religious commercialism where the customer is king and evangelism involves marketing a useful product.  In this new religious context the Gospel—the Good News of Christ—is no longer the eternal truth of God but what suits the taste of the current market.  


Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church – Warrenville, IL

In contrast to Protestantism’s constantly evolving forms of worship is the Orthodox Church’s adherence to the historic forms of worship.  A visitor to an Orthodox Sunday service will get to see the fourth century Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.  Orthodoxy’s liturgical style of worship retains a sense of dignity and hierarchical ordering long gone from from much of Protestantism.  One notable example of this are the Small Entrance and the Great Entrance when the priest and the acolytes process around the interior of the church.  Orthodoxy’s rubrics and protocols provide a much needed corrective to the casual informality of modernity.  






Hierarchy and the Biblical Worldview

Hospital Hierarchy: Doctors, Residents, Nurses

How we worship God and how we live do matter.   They are intertwined to an extent far more than we realize.   Our understanding of society and human nature is impacted by our rituals and practices.  The small act of bowing is consequential because it embodies the Orthodox ethos and worldview.  To venerate the saints is to accept Orthodoxy’s hierarchical and sacramental worldview, where the heavenly realm overlaps with the earthly.  The Protestant rejection of bowing reflects a flat, egalitarian approach to social relations, and a utilitarian, non-sacramental approach to nature. 

Modern humanists of the Enlightenment who espouse egalitarianism don’t like the practice of veneration. They scorn it as “worshiping man,“ but they are wrong. It is not sinful to give honor to another human being but a practical acknowledgement of the way reality works. All men are not equal in every respect.  Hierarchies do matter.  There are hierarchical orders in our schools, in the workplace, in the military, in the hospitals, in our government.  Why, then, do Protestants insist that churches be devoid of hierarchical order?  We honor our graduates, our heroes, and those who made a contribution to society.  Why not face up to the fact that some Christians are indeed worthy of our appreciation, esteem, and honor?

Protestants should also face up to the fact that according respect to our elders and those above us is part of the biblical worldview.  In the Old Testament youths were exhorted to show respect to their elders.

Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:32; NIV)

In the New Testament, the laity was encouraged to honor the clergy.

Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor; especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.(1 Timothy 5:17; OSB)


Kissing Priest Hasnd

Becoming an Orthodox Christian involves not just learning and accepting a body of teachings, but also entering into a cultural ethos.  For Protestant inquirers, it means relinquishing their rugged self-independence and accepting the Church as our Mother.  An important mark of an inquirer’s readiness to become Orthodox is humility.  Calling a priest “Father” can be difficult for some Protestant inquirers but it marks an important milestone in their journey to Orthodoxy.  Calling a priest “Father” is an acknowledgment that the priest stands as a representative of Jesus Christ and has the awesome responsibility of pastoring Christ’s flock.   At his ordination the priest is invested with the authority of the Orthodox Church and acts as a representative of the bishop, who stands in apostolic succession. In light of this, addressing a priest as “Father” is an act of showing respect to the Lord Jesus.  It is also important to know that the priest’s authority is not arbitrary but is based upon and constrained by capital “T” Tradition.   His authority is valid so long as he remains faithful to Tradition.  The priority of capital “T” Tradition provides a much needed safeguard against arbitrary power and spiritual abuse.   


Icon – All Saints

Hierarchy and the Coming Age

Hierarchical ordering is not just for the present age but also for the age to come.  The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians described the coming age in which the resurrected saints will live in a glorified state.  

All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds.

There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.  There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. (1 Corinthians 15:39-41; OSB)

It is worth noting that there will be different grades of glory among the saints.  This can be inferred from “one star differs from another star in glory.”  They all belong to the same category of being but differ with respect to status.  

When Orthodox Christians venerate the saints they are showing respect to their older brothers in the faith.  Undergirding the spirituality of venerating icons is element of prayer, of relationality.  When I venerate an icon I usually ask the saint to pray for me or for someone I have in mind.  Without prayer, venerating icons become a superficial, perfunctory ritual.  Underneath the venerating of the saints is a combination of affection and respect we show to our elder brothers and sisters in the Faith.  This awareness of the importance of showing respect to older siblings or to older peers in school or the work place can still be found in Asian cultures.  Present day Asians still have this appreciation for hierarchical order whereas this has largely disappeared in the West and in the U.S. where the culture of modernity has obliterated the old way of life.  


Making Faith Real

Let me close with a personal observation that the Orthodox practice of bowing to show respect brought a physicality to my spiritual life that I did not experience as a Protestant.  In many ways Protestantism is a cerebral religion and of which one unintended consequence is the mind-body split that weakens one’s spiritual development.  The deep-seated individualism in Protestant spirituality has given rise to the plethora of denominations undermining their sense of belonging to the Church Militant.  It has also led to Protestants suffering a spiritual disconnect with the Church Triumphant.  This can be seen in widespread historical amnesia among Protestants and their refusing to venerate the saints.   For me, becoming Orthodox has brought a deeper sense of belonging to the historic Church, a stronger sense of alignment with the biblical worldview, and an appreciation of integration into the cosmic order—the saints and the angels gathered before the throne of God as described in Revelation 7.  

To sum up, the Orthodox veneration of the saints and the angels are not something added on to Christianity but deeply rooted in the biblical worldview and very much a part of the historic Christian Faith.  The Protestant disavowal of the veneration of the saints marks a departure from the historic Christian Faith and created a new form of spirituality.  Thank you for your question which has led me to a deeper appreciation of a “minor” practice within Orthodoxy.  I hope that this response addresses your concerns and helps you to continue on in your journey to Orthodoxy.

Robert Arakaki



Douglas Cramer.  “Call No Man Father?”  Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

John S. Morrill.  “Oliver Cromwell: English Stateman.”  Britannica.com

On Kissing the Priest’s Hand.”  OrthoChristian.

W. Stanford Reid. “John Calvin: One of the Fathers of Modern Democracy.”  Christian History Institute

Q. 126 to Q. 133 — Westminster Larger Catechism.



The Power of Holy Beauty


Hagia Sophia – Church of Holy Wisdom

The historic Orthodox church building Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) recently received considerable international attention when Turkey’s highest administrative court gave the green light for the church’s conversion from a museum to a mosque. (Al JazeeraThe decision was met with widespread criticism or concern by political and religious leaders.  (See References below: European Union, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Russia, Patriarchate of Constantinople and Patriarchate of Antioch.)

When I was a Protestant, I found myself deeply moved and inspired by Hagia Sophia.  Unlike other Christian edifices, Hagia Sophia possessed a mystical beauty that haunted me.  I knew that it was no longer a church building, that it had been seized by the Ottoman Turks and more recently had been converted into a museum.  But even then, I found myself drawn to pictures of Hagia Sophia’s otherworldly interior that drew one’s attention heavenwards and glowing golden icons that spoke of another world beyond.  

People sometimes boast that their church meet in a warehouse.  I found myself wondering why they made such a big deal about that fact.  Later I realized that the boast was an assertion of their being solidly Protestant without all the external decorations and rituals of Roman Catholicism.  In other words, church architecture is not neutral but can be an expression of theology.  

It seems that some Protestant circles intentionally promote a utilitarian approach to church buildings and to church ministries as well.  This is similar to the error of Judas when he condemned the woman for wasting expensive perfume on the Lord when it could have been sold and the profit used for ministry to the poor (Mark 14:3-9).  For the pragmatists the construction of ornate, beautiful buildings is a waste of money which could be spent on “more important things.”  However, the lesson we draw from Scripture is that our God is a lover of beauty.  Jesus praised the woman’s lavish anointing of perfume noting: “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”  (Mark 14:6, RSV)


Byzantine Bishop Receiving King Vladimir’s Delegation

Hagia Sophia and the Conversion of the Slavs

The spiritual power of church architecture is demonstrated by the well-known story of how Hagia Sophia led to the conversion of the Slavs.  The Primary Chronicle recounts how Prince Vladimir then a pagan was visited by representatives of the major religions of the time who spoke highly of their religion and denigrated the other religions.  His counselors told him that it was natural for people to be biased towards their own religion so they gave him this advice: 

You know, oh Prince, that no man condemns his own possessions, but praises them instead. If you desire to make certain, you have servants at your disposal. Send them to inquire about the ritual of each and how he worships God. (Primary Chronicle p. 110)

The envoys visited Germany, the Balkans, and Constantinople, observed the religious services then returned home.  In their report they noted:  

When we journeyed among the Bulgars, we beheld how they worship in their temple, called a mosque, while they stand ungirt. The Bulgar bows, sits down, looks hither and thither like one possessed, and there is no happiness among them, but instead only sorrow and a dreadful stench. Their religion is not good. Then we went among the Germans, and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples; but we beheld no glory there. Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. (Primary Chronicle p. 111; emphasis added)

The conversion of the Slavs was a long time coming and many peoples and factors were at work.  Even a casual perusal of the Primary Chronicle makes clear the human elements that accompanied Prince Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity: his geopolitical ambitions, his besieging of Kherson, and the heartbreak of Princess Anna being given away in marriage to seal Vladimir’s conversion (Primary Chronicle pp. 111-113).  From a critical standpoint the envoys’ report on their visit to Hagia Sophia contains legendary elements but as J.M. Hussey notes there are “strands of truth” to the story (pp. 118-119).  

This account of the conversion of the Slavs points to the power of holy beauty.  In some branches of Christianity, apologetics is done by appealing to reason and logic alone.  In contrast, Orthodoxy appeals not just to reason and logic but also to the very human and aesthetic experience of Orthodoxy worship: “Come and see!”  (John 1:46)  


Interior of Solomon’s Temple (artist’s depiction)

Architecture as Sacrament

Orthodoxy believes that all of creation is meant to be offered up to God and by grace transformed into sacraments (channels of grace).  In Orthodoxy, church buildings are not viewed as merely functional shells but as manifestations of the kingdom of God on earth.  Orthodox church architecture follows the heavenly prototype.  This can be seen in the continuity between the architecture of Moses’ Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple, both which were laid out in great ornate detail in the Holy Scripture of the Old Testament and imitated in Orthodox church buildings today.  

There is in Orthodoxy a tradition regarding church architecture.  It is expected that the church building will face east and that the interior layout will consist of the narthex, nave, and sanctuary (the altar area).  Every Orthodox church has an iconostasis or icon screen.  It is expected that the roof of the nave or middle area where the faithful gather will have a Pantocrator icon.  This particular icon depicts Christ as the Pantocrator or All Ruling One.  Upon completion the church building is consecrated much like Moses’ Tabernacle (Exodus 40) and Solomon’s Temple (2 Chronicles 5).  Once consecrated an Orthodox church cannot be used for secular functions.   

Orthodoxy’s approach to church architecture stands in radical opposition to Protestantism’s understanding of church buildings as intrinsically neutral and sacredness being contingent on the purpose of the activity.  Thus, some Protestant church buildings after a worship service may be used to hold a town hall meeting.   Many Reformed and Evangelical churches are marked by austere, minimalist interiors.  This stems from the belief that spiritual beauty is interior and best expressed through hymns or preaching.  Reformed churches that seek to manifest spiritual beauty through visual arts and church architecture are more the exception than the rule.  See my earlier article: “Images Inside Reformed Churches.


Remembering Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is much more than an architectural marvel.  It was designed, constructed, and consecrated for the worship of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It was here that the Eucharist was celebrated, where “heaven strikes earth like lightning.” [#1] It was where one of the greatest preachers of all time—John the Golden Mouth (Chrysostom)—preached the Gospel.  Even when it fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Hagia Sophia still retains a Christian character and a haunting and holy beauty.  Its beauty has haunted Orthodox Christians and we mourn the loss.  

Orthodoxy’s mourning over the loss of Hagia Sophia resonates with Scripture.  The Old Testament records the Israelites’ mourning the loss of Zion and their hope for the rebuilding the Temple.

When you rise up, You shall have compassion on Zion,
For it is time to have compassion on Zion,
For Your servants took pleasure in her stones,
And they shall have compassion for her dust.
And the Gentiles shall fear the name of the Lord,
And all the kings of the earth Your Glory;
For the Lord shall build Zion,
And He shall be seen in His Glory.

(Psalm 101 (102), OSB; emphasis added)

Psalm 50 (51), which is particularly beloved by Orthodox Christians, can be read as prophetically calling for the rebuilding of Zion.

Do good, O Lord, in Your good pleasure to Zion,
And let the walls of Jerusalem be built;
Then You will be pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness,
With offerings and whole burnt offering;
Then shall they offer young bulls on Your altar. 

(Psalm 50 (51), OSB; emphasis added)

There are people today who have hope that Hagia Sophia will one day be restored as a place of Christian worship.  It would be a miracle but with God all things are possible.  



1500s — Islam’s inroads into Europe circa 1529 Siege of Vienna

Geopolitics and Hagia Sophia

Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan defended the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque as Turkey’s “historical and sovereign right.”  Many Muslims greeted the news of Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque with joy.  This joy stem from the fact that for Muslims Hagia Sophia is a war prize obtained during Islam’s centuries long military expansion into Europe.  Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, thirty years before Martin Luther was born.  Protestants often overlook the fact that Luther and Calvin lived in a period when Islam was encroaching on Europe’s eastern borders.  Luther wrote On War Against the Turk (Kriege wider die Türken) in 1528, shortly after the capture of Buda (modern day Budapest, the capital of Hungary) and during the siege of Vienna (the capital of modern-day Austria) (See Forell 1946).  Older Americans, who remember seeing Julie Andrews in the movie Sound of Music, might want to reflect that Vienna could have become a Muslim city if history had taken a different turn.  Protestantism’s encounter with Islam has been largely tangential in comparison with Orthodoxy which had centuries of experience of living under Muslim rule.  

Today — Turkey’s Current Geopolitical Context

The recent developments in Hagia Sophia should not be viewed as a minor religious kerfuffle, but as fraught with geopolitical implications.  Hagia Sophia can be said to mark the point where three major political-religious tectonic plates converge and press against each other: Western Europe’s republican secularism, Russia’s Orthodox Christian nationalism, and Turkey’s Islamic nationalism.  This notion has been anticipated by Samuel Huntington in his controversial 1993 Foreign Policy article “The Clash of Civilizations?  At present Turkey is a candidate nation to the European Union, however, the recent decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque has been condemned by the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council and could undermine Turkey’s path to EU membership.  

Hagia Sophia’s conversion from a museum into a mosque represents a major setback for Turkey’s official Kemalist secularism.  The decision points to the growing influence of a religious nationalism which seeks to replace the secular state with one that operates in partnership with the majority religion of Islam.  Modern-day Turkey emerged following Word War 1 and adopted Kemalist secularism in 1928.  In other words, Turkey’s secularism is relatively recent and not well established.  A similar phenomenon has been taking place in Turkey’s neighbor to the north, Russia.  In the wake of the collapse of Communism in 1989, Russia has been actively reclaiming its Orthodox Christian heritage.  Instead of opting for Western secularism, Russia has chosen the path of religious nationalism.  The Patriarchate of Moscow has been actively extending its presence internationally in recent years.  Patriarch Kyril of Moscow has been outspoken in his criticism of Western Europe’s pursuit of secularism.  In contrast, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has become a shrunken shadow of itself.  Patriarch Bartholomew now presides over a few city blocks in Istanbul, the Phanar (Fener) district.  It is telling that there are Greek Orthodox parishes in America that have more Orthodox members than in Istanbul (Constantinople) today.  It is plausible to surmise that the Patriarch of Moscow with the backing of the Russian government will take a leading role in shaping the future of Hagia Sophia.  The real conflict in world politics may not be democracy versus authoritarianism, but rather the rivalry between secularism and the various religious nationalisms.  The partnering of religion and politics can also be seen in Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Reformed Church of Hungary, and in Poland’s Law and Justice Party which is closely allied with the Roman Catholic Church.  While Turkey’s recent decision may stir up religious sentiments, official political reactions so far has been rather muted.  See Hussain’s and Suchkov’s articles below in References.  


Architecture as Evangelism

Hagia Sophia is more than just a building.  This building changed the course of history.  World history would be quite different if Russia had adopted a different religion.  But even more than the church building, it was the celebration of the Liturgy that converted the Slavs.  The divine glory radiating from the Liturgy filled Hagia Sophia and illuminated the hearts of those present.  What happened in Hagia Sophia in 987 when Prince Vladimir’s envoys attended the Liturgy is still happening today.  Like the early Slavs, many people today have attributed their conversion to Orthodoxy to their experience of the Liturgy.  If one visits an Orthodox church service today, one can catch a glimpse of the heavenly worship like that offered when Hagia Sophia was a Christian church building.  On a typical Sunday Orthodox churches still use the ancient Liturgy of John Chrysostom, which he celebrated in the fourth century.  Orthodox churches today have icons of Christ and the saints similar to that seen in Hagia Sophia.  Even today in the twenty-first century one can hear ancient Christian hymns like “Joyous Light” (Phos Hilaron), “Only Begotten” (Monogenes), or the Trisagion Hymn (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal).  Every year on Easter Sunday (Pascha Sunday) the Orthodox Church celebrates Christ’s Resurrection by reading out loud John Chrysostom’s classic Easter sermon just as he did in Hagia Sophia.  Hagia Sophia’s holy beauty lives on today in Orthodox churches around the world.  To those who are intrigued by Hagia Sophia’s holy beauty and curious about the Orthodox Faith, we say: “Come and see!”  

Robert Arakaki



Al Jazeera.  Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia for first time in 86 years.  Al Jazeera, 24 July 2020.

Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.  Statement on the Tragic Conversion of Hagia Sophia from Museum to Mosque.”  10 July 2020.

Robert Arakaki.  Images Inside Reformed Churches.”  OrthodoxBridge, 7 March 2020.

Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, translators and editors.  Primary Chronicle.  Laurentian Text (986-988).  The Mediaeval Academy of America.  Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ecupatria.org.  “Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew About Hagia Sophia.

Herald Malaysia. “Bartholomew I slams the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, says it offends Orthodox identity, history and culture.”  Herald Malaysia Online, 14 September 2020.

Shahid Hussain.  “Deconstructing Russia’s Response to the Hagia Sophia.”  ModernDiplomacy.eu

European Parliament Think Tank.  Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s secularism under threat.”  24 July 2020.

Geraldine Fagan.  Political Christianity in Orbán’s Hungary.”  The Budapest Beacon,  3 April 2018.

George W. Forell.  “Luther and the War Against the Turks.”  Concordia Theological Monthly.  September 1946.

Samuel P. Huntington.  “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Policy (1993) reprinted 2013.  

J.M. Hussey.  The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire.  Clarendon Press: Oxford, UK.

Frederica Mathewes-Green.  At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy.  New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.  [#1 – This is the source for the phrase: “heaven strikes earth like lightning.”]

Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.  “Turkey has the right to protest its national interests.”  Geopolitical Intelligence Services.

Orthodox Church.  Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow – West is Making a Mistake.” YouTube video [4:40]

Michael R. Pompeo.  “The Status of Hagia Sophia.”  U.S. State Department, 1 July 2020.

Rob Schmitz.  As An Election Nears In Poland, Church And State Are A Popular Combination.”  NPR 12 October 2019.  

Maxim A. Suchkov.  “Why did Moscow call Ankara’s Hagia Sophia decision ‘Turkey’s internal affair’?”  Middle East Institute.

Mr. Whalen (Suffern HIgh School).  “1529 C.E. – Siege of Vienna.”



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